Army Unmanned Aircraft Program Hits 2 Million Flight Hours

Leadership Perspectives
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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) - One Army program office at Redstone Arsenal is celebrating a milestone this month.

This week on Leadership Perspectives, WHNT News 19's Steve Johnson spoke with Rich Kretzschmar, the U.S. Army deputy program manager for unmanned aircraft, who says his program reached a big milestone this month. The Army's unmanned aircraft systems reached two-million flight hours.

We're talking about drones -- unmanned airplanes or aircraft systems used by the military. After taking 19 years to get the first million, the second million took just four years.

Kretzschmar says the capability of the planes soldiers are using is improving all the time. That's a big deal in a place like Afghanistan.

"That represents the proliferation of unmanned aircraft systems in the army, and the fact that it took us 19 years to get there isn't a reflection on the lack of importance, but the quickness with which we got to the second million speaks to how much they're proliferated, and how much the army has accepted them as value added to this nation, and how they fight," said Kretzschmar.

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With “drone” being such a buzzword today, it’s hard to believe that there were worries in the past that funding for the program would dry up.

“The value of the situational awareness provided to the warfighter wasn't recognized early in the program. Once we got fielded, and they understood the importance and the value of knowing  exactly what was around the corner and over the next hill at every echelon in the army, the value was recognized and the proliferation occurred,” said Kretzschmar.

According to Kretzschmar, that's why over the last decade we saw this huge increase in the number of unmanned-aircraft.

The ability an unmanned aircraft has brings utility to the soldier in the field that’s hard to achieve with other tools.

“What it all boils down to, it gives the commander at every echelon more information about what's around him, and so at division and corps level which are thousands of soldiers, theater type activities,” said Kretzschmar. “When you walk down to the squad level, which is just a group of guys with a backpack portable system. They can pull out, and throw up in the air, and get situational awareness for what's next to them, what's over the next hill. What's going to help them execute whatever they're trying to do."

The value of the systems, to Kretzschmar, is that it keeps soldiers out of harm’s way when scouting. Hearing stories from soldiers about the scucesses of the system is the best part of Kretzschmar’s job, he says.

“’It saved my life.’ We hear that a lot. ‘It saved my life.’ And for a government civilian, doing the kind of things we do, there's no greater reward than hearing somebody say that, and we hear that pretty frequently actually. There's a tag line we use, and I can't remember who said it or why, ‘We don't go outside the wire without the UAS in the air.’”

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The sophistication of the system gives our soldiers on the battlefield and in the war rooms and incredible edge, according to Kretzschmar.

“Cameras are much more sophisticated. We have electro-optical IR, which in laymen’s terms means you can see day or night, and you can see a lot further and a lot clearer. We have high definition cameras. But we also have multi intelligence sensors on there, so they don't just rely on the visual spectrum any longer. We have radar on there, we have electronic warfare systems, we have signal intelligence payloads, we have weapons on some of the systems now,” said Kretzschmar.

That last bit sometimes gives people pause. There has been discussion, sometimes heated, about the presence of weapons on unmanned aircraft.

“And so people sometimes question that. They think that the drones are out there firing weapons. That's not true. We call them unmanned systems, but there is always a man in the loop. There’s always somebody at that ground control station telling it where to go. There's a degree of autonomy which allows it to fly around and do things without the operator telling it to, but the weapons are never fired without a person involved," said Kretzschmar.

Those operators—the modern soldier—are well experienced at controlling drones, thanks in part to Xbox and PlayStation.

"Absolutely, you know we kid around that it's almost like a video game, and it's true this generation of soldiers grew up with the Xboxes and the PlayStations and we understand that. We use that. We are very deliberate about the man-mission interface and how the information is passed to the soldier, and how that is going to be received and guided by the soldier. So we actually bring those guys in and they help us design the screens, and help us design the joy sticks and the control systems and the things, so that number one it's familiar to them but also it's as efficient as it can be for them," said Kretzschmar.